Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Strangers in the Field

A few years ago I read Trading Bases, a book about a former Wall Street trader who decided to try his hand at investing in a different type of commodity. The book inspired me to work harder on my own regression formulas with college football and see if I could turn a profit in Sin City. Not being financially independent enough (or bold enough) to quit my job and move to Las Vegas and realizing how difficult it is to beat the casino by betting individual games, I decided to visit during the summer and use my preseason ratings to, in effect, bet every game a team plays via over/under win totals. I also decided to bet a few 'Games of the Year' where the line appeared off based on my preseason ratings. I just returned from my trip to Vegas, and in the interest of ensuring my bets win, I decided to post them here. Enjoy.

Over/Under Win Totals
The premise here is simple. These bets are on teams to either go 'over' or 'under' a baseline win total.

Miami over 6 wins -200 ($150 to win $75)
The Miami Hurricanes were the great enigma of the 2014 season. After an inauspicious 3-3 start, the Hurricanes seemed like a team coalescing over the second half of the season with three consecutive wins over bowl teams (Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina) by a combined 72 points. Heading into their mid-November showdown with Florida State, the Hurricanes were nearly even money to end the Seminoles 25-game winning streak. As was seemingly the case in every Florida State game in 2014, the 'Noles fell behind early before rallying to pull one out of the fire. Whether or not the Hurricanes were emotionally damaged by that blown opportunity, they struggled down the stretch, losing by double-digits to two ACC also-rans (Virginia and Pitt) before losing a tight Independence Bowl to South Carolina. The four-game skid gave Miami its first losing season under Al Golden, and had many questioning how far the program has come under his guidance. 2015 will likely serve as a referendum on his tenure. Either the Hurricanes will improve and set the stage for a few more years of white shirts and ties on the sidelines or regress and start looking to make a change. Despite their late-season struggles, the Hurricanes actually rated as the top team in the ACC based on their conference only Yards Per Play (YPP) numbers. In fact, if we plot Miami's YPP numbers for each year of Golden's tenure, we can see pretty clear improvement.
The Hurricane's defense has gone from a weakness to a strength, while the offense has maintained its standing near the top of the conference. If you didn't know Miami's record last season, and just looked at these numbers, it wouldn't take much to project them for at least seven wins in twelve games. Granted, wins and losses are pretty important in college football (and sports in general), but the Hurricanes appear destined to improve this season. The schedule is a bit tricky, as it includes non-conference clashes with Cincinnati and Nebraska as well as the toughest draw from the Atlantic Division (Clemson and Florida State), but this low number is too good to pass up even if you do have to pay a bit of a premium to get it.

South Carolina over 6.5 wins -125 ($50 to win $40)
Last year at this time, South Carolina was coming off three consecutive eleven win campaigns and was ranked in the preseason top-10. Despite the loss of some key pieces from perhaps the most successful multi-year run in school history, including Jadeveon Clowney, Connor Shaw, and Bruce Ellington, the optimism in Columbia was unbridled. And then Texas A&M came to town and eviscerated any hope that the Gamecocks would be a contender in the SEC East. The Gamecock defense elevated a player that would not finish the year as his team's starter into a premature Heisman candidate. And now, with memories of the year long struggle to tackle and hold leads fresh in the public's mind, I think the Gamecocks are undervalued. Keep in mind, although they finished 3-5 in SEC play, four of their losses were by a touchdown or less. In fact, despite their struggles, the Gamecocks were good enough to beat Georgia (at home) and Florida (on the road), not to mention mid-major bowl teams in East Carolina and South Alabama. I don't expect South Carolina to win the SEC East this season, but the Gamecocks have finished with at least seven regular season wins eight times in Spurrier's ten seasons as coach. There are some challenging non-conference games on the slate, including a pair of tilts with ACC foes Clemson and North Carolina, but I think the Gamecocks get to at least seven wins.

Syracuse over 4.5 wins -120 ($40 to win $33.35)
The Orange were a team that suffered through a second year stagnation. After a 7-6 maiden voyage that included a bowl upset over Minnesota, Syracuse saw their regular season win total cut in half as they struggled through a 3-9 season. The Orange were especially poor down the stretch as they lost their last five games while averaging just over nine points per game. In fact, if not for the presence of Wake Forest and their historically poor offense, Syracuse would have ranked last in the ACC in Yards Per Play by a significant margin. Some of their offensive struggles can be blamed on the loss of Terrel Hunt to injury in the fifth game. While Hunt only threw a single touchdown pass on the year, he did run for six scores and threw just four interceptions. If Hunt can stay healthy, Syracuse could double or triple last season's conference win total. The non-conference slate includes a pair of likely wins (Rhode Island and Central Michigan), a sure loss (LSU), and a tricky road game against another coach on the hot seat (South Florida). If the Orange are able to take care of the Bulls on the road, they stand a great chance at getting to another bowl game. While that may seem like faint praise, its important to remember that success is relative lest we forget the Greg Robinson era.

Texas over 6.5 wins +105 ($30 to win $31.50)
Charlie Strong begins his second season in the Lonestar state attempting to return the Longhorns to an elite level of football. Hard to believe, but since playing in the BCS National Championship Game following the 2009 season, Texas has finished the season in the final poll just once. Those are David McWilliams' numbers. There were some bright spots in Strong's first season, including a late three-game winning streak to become bowl eligible, and a near upset of UCLA. However, the Longhorns also lost five games (including the bowl) by at least three touchdowns. An optimist would point out that most of those losses came to elite teams (Arkansas, Baylor, BYU, TCU, and Kansas State), but that is still unbecoming of a team with the pedigree of Texas. Realistically, with Notre Dame and a tricky Cal on the non-conference schedule, I think Texas will probably end up with exactly six wins, but I figured I would roll the dice anyway. Hook 'em baby!

Texas A&M under 8 wins -120 ($40 to win $33.35)
Peruse a few college football coaching hot seat lists and either Kevin Sumlin's name will be close to the bottom, or not on them at all. However, if you take a closer look at his record, you can start to see some diminishing returns. Whether it be the actual record (11-2 in his first year to 9-4 in his second to 8-5 in his third) or the in-conference YPP numbers.
In order to address their critical deficiency on the defensive side of the ball, the Aggies hired John Chavis, an SEC lifer, to be their defensive coordinator. Chavis has coordinated some fine defenses during his time at Tennessee and LSU (see below), but asking for miracles like feeding the 105,000 at Kyle Field might be a bit much.
As a point of reference, the Aggies would have failed to go over this number last season (finished 7-5). They do have the good fortune of trading Missouri for Vanderbilt in one of their cross-division games, but they make up for it by adding Arizona State to the non-conference schedule. Give the Aggies a hand for challenging themselves outside the league as their first 12 non-conference games as SEC members included SMU (3 times), Rice (2 times), Sam Houston State (2 times and an FCS school), Lamar (FCS), Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech, South Carolina State (FCS), and UTEP. In the rugged SEC West, the Aggies look headed for a 6-6 or 7-5 finish.

West Virginia under 7.5 wins -115 ($40 to win $34.80)
Last year was a crucial one for the health of the West Virginia program and for the future employment opportunities of coach Dana Holgorsen. After guiding the Mountaineers to an historical Orange Bowl rout of Clemson in his first season and a 5-0 start and top-5 ranking in his second, the veneer of the program had cracked. The Mountaineers lost six of their final eight games in 2012 before cratering to 4-8 in 2013 with losses to both Kansas and Iowa State. Needing a rebound in 2014, the Mountaineers opened the season by hanging with Alabama in the Georgia Dome, then won six of their next seven, including a decisive home win over Baylor. Once again, the Mountaineers limped to the finish, losing four of their last five, albeit with close losses to TCU and Kansas State. With nine starters back from a defense that ranked second in the Big 12 in Yards Per Play allowed last season, I think West Virginia can get to a bowl in 2015. However, the odd year conference schedule will likely keep West Virginia from improving on last season's regular season win total. The Mountaineers must travel to Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and TCU this season. If the Mountaineers steal one of those games, it would qualify as a large upset. Throw in the depth of the Big 12, with Kansas and Iowa State as the only 'gimmes' on the schedule (and keep in mind West Virginia lost to both just two seasons ago) plus a non-conference game with Maryland (and Georgia Southern) and I can't see the Mountaineers doing better than 7-5.

Games of the Year
Typically betting lines are set on Sunday for games beginning the following week. However, sportsbooks set a few 'Game of the Year' lines for certain games that are months away from occurring. The home team in these games is listed in bold.

October 3rd
South Carolina +6.5 Missouri -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
These teams have played three times as SEC foes, with the Gamecocks winning two (a blowout and an overtime affair when Connor Shaw pulled a Willis Reed - although Shaw actually did something instead of just providing the always ephemeral motivation and inspiration) and losing a one-point decision when the OBC was asleep at the wheel in regards to two-point strategy. These teams did play a fourth time during the respective tenure of both coaches, but that came during the 2005 Independence Bowl, during which Missouri twice rallied from a 21-point deficit to upset the Gamecocks. While Missouri has won the SEC East the past two seasons, they only have a middling Against the Spread (ATS) performance as a home favorite, going 5-4 in that span. The real money to be made on Missouri has been when they are catching points. As an underdog of any kind (excluding postseason games), the Tigers are an incredible 7-1 ATS with seven outright victories. As I wrote earlier, I think the Gamecocks will improve this season and with them catching nearly a touchdown here, they are a good play.

October 31st
Oregon State +16 Utah -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Is there a better team to back on Samhain than one that looks a little like a candy corn? Obviously, my analysis is a little deeper than that (but not much). Oregon State has a new head coach for the first time since 2002. Gary Andersen has already proven his coaching prowess at Utah State and Wisconsin, and while this year will probably be one of transition for the Beavers (in other words, no bowl game), they should be improved enough two months into the season to stay within two touchdowns of Utah. Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, Utah is just 5-7 ATS as a home favorite against conference foes and 1-4 as a double-digit home favorite. I think that trend will continue here.

November 12th
Virginia Tech +6 Georgia Tech -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Last season, Georgia Tech rode an outstanding offense and an opportunistic defense to a win over Georgia, an ACC Championship Game appearance, an Orange Bowl win, and a top-ten finish. However, despite their success, Georgia Tech continued their defensive struggles under Paul Johnson. I have been a huge fan of the former Georgia Southern and Navy head coach since the day he was hired. I love seeing the archaic triple option being run by a major conference program. And the option has not disappointed. However, after a solid showing during his first season, the defense has been a consistent liability for the Yellow Jackets under Johnson.
Even last season, the Jackets ranked second to last in the ACC in yards per play allowed. When they were not forcing turnovers, the Yellow Jackets struggled mightily in stopping opponents. The defense may improve this season, but they will be hard pressed to repeat their proclivity in the turnover department. For that reason, I think Georgia Tech is overrated heading into the 2015 season. And this spread in particular, seems way off. Since Johnson took over as head coach prior to the 2008 season, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech have played seven times. Six of those games have been decided by seven points or less, and the one that was not was won by the Hokies. In addition, Virginia Tech has done a phenomenal job of holding the Georgia Tech option in check. In those seven games, Georgia Tech has averaged just under 21 points per game (compared to the 32.2 points per game the Yellow Jackets have averaged for the duration of the Johnson era). I like the Hokies to keep this one close even though the game is in Atlanta.

October 17th
Pittsburgh +11 Georgia Tech -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
I already summed up my reasons for fading Georgia Tech in the previous paragraph, but even with those qualifiers, this spread seems egregiously high. Georgia Tech did beat Pitt by four touchdowns last season, but keep in mind the Panthers lost five fumbles in the first quarter! Even though the game is in Atlanta, I'll take the Panthers to stay within double-digits.

November 21st
Miami +3 Georgia Tech -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
This appears to be another Georgia Tech spread that is artificially high. In last season's game, Miami only scored 17 points, but they moved the ball efficiently, averaging eight yards per play. In three previous trips to south Florida under Paul Johnson, the Yellow Jackets are 0-3, with each loss coming by at least 15 points. With the Hurricanes catching points here, this is too good to pass up.

Miscellaneous Bets
This is a college football blog, but there were a few other events I wanted to bet on.

Pittsburgh Pirates 10-1 to win World Series ($15 to win $150)
Hard to believe I bet on a team with the tatted AJ Burnett playing a prominent role to win the World Series. Maybe I had one too many midori sours. While the risk here is minimal, this could wind up being something I regret more than when I signed up for Ashley Madison. Yes, the Pirates will likely have to win a do or die Wildcard Game to even get in the 'real' playoffs, but they have the 3rd best record in baseball, strong pitching and defense combo (fourth in the NL in runs allowed behind Burnett, Gerrit Cole, and Francisco Liriano), and one of the best players in baseball manning center field. I would't hold my breath on Pittsburgh winning their first title since 1979, but at 10-1, I thought the odds were solid.

Toronto Blue Jays 30-1 to win World Series ($10 to win $300)
With Jamie Moyer retired, I decided to bet on the team that employs my other favorite soft-tossing lefty. I made this bet because I felt like the Blue Jays were due for a market correction of sorts as their run differential is one of the best in baseball and belies their mediocre record. I made this bet in the morning on the 30th, and later that afternoon they acquired one of the best arms available in David Price. I can't take credit for having inside information on that one. At least, that's my story. The addition of Price bolsters the Blue Jays starting rotation that was one of the weaker links on the team. They are probably too far behind to catch the Yankees for the division (six games, but more importantly seven losses behind as of this writing), but the Wildcard and a potential one game playoff are certainly on the table. The Blue Jays have a long way to go, but at 30-1, I couldn't pass this up. Oh, and one more thing. With the addition of Price, the Blue Jays now have both 2012 Cy Young Award winners in the rotation.

Reckless Parlay
I couldn't leave Las Vegas without buying at least one lottery ticket. This is your standard seven team parlay. All games must be correct for the parlay to pay out and each game occurs over Labor Day Weekend.
$10 to win $900

Game 1: September 3rd
South Carolina -3 North Carolina (@Charlotte)
I think South Carolina will be better than they were last year. Plus, the Gamecocks have performed quite well against ACC teams over the last half-decade.

Game 2: September 3rd
Michigan +5.5 Utah
Am I putting too much stock in the Jim Harbaugh Effect? Probably.

Game 3: September 3rd
Western Kentucky +2.5 Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt was bad last year. They will probably be better this season. However, Western Kentucky could win Conference USA. Regardless, I think this will be one of the more entertaining game on the season's first Thursday.

Game 4: September 5th
Northwestern +12 Stanford
NERDS! Stanford travels to the Central Time Zone and gives double-digits.

Game 5: September 5th
Arizona State +3 Texas A&M (@ Houston)
Can the Aggies fix the defense in their first game under John Chavis? I certainly hope not.

Game 6: September 5th
BYU +5.5 Nebraska
These two teams have a long and storied rivalry. Just kidding. They have never played each other except in NCAA Football.

Game 7: Georgia Southern +19 West Virginia
The Eagles nearly upset a pair of ACC teams last year. If you got tackling problems I feel bad for ya son, the Eagles got 99 problems, but a p*tch ain't one.

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